With an election looming, can Brazil finally confront its injustices?
In 'normal' circumstances, Brazil's multiple crises – in health, the economy, politics and the environment – would spell doom for President Bolsonaro. And yet he may emerge unscathed
It was once fashionable to describe Brazil as the country of the future. What a difference half a decade makes. In recent years, a democratically elected president was stripped of power, and ultimately replaced by an authoritarian strongman. Today, Latin America's largest country is suffering from a “triple crisis” – a raging pandemic, economic turmoil and political turbulence. It wasn't supposed to be this way. So what accounts for Brazil's malaise?
Brazil has a host of assets that should have set the country up for success. For one, it is a demographic giant: there are at least 210 million Brazilians, making it the sixth most populous country on the planet. Brazil is also an economic powerhouse. With a GDP of $1.8trn, it is the tenth-largest economy in the world. The country is also geographically vast, spanning 8.5 million km2 – the same as western Europe – and is home to 40% of the world's tropical forests, 20% of its freshwater supply, and 10% of its biodiversity.
So why, in spite of this abundance of riches, has Brazil struggled to fulfil the potential of its national motto, ordem e progresso (order and progress), since its independence in 1822? Virtually every scholar who studies the country agrees that it has yet to live up to the philosopher Auguste Comte’s ode to positivism: l’amour pour principe e l’ordre pour base: le progres pour but (love as a principle and order as the basis: progress as the goal).
The myth of racial harmony
The answer is that Brazil suffers from a case of mistaken identity. For half a century, Brazil has been cast as a kind of alluring paradise, of unspoiled wilderness, a place of carefree indolence and sensuality, of cordiality and racial harmony. Yet this image is at odds with the facts. The country's Amazonian resources have been plundered. It is also suffering from eye-watering inequality that puts 90% of the wealth in the hands of 10% of the population, extreme racism against the more than 50% of the population who are Afro-Brazilian, breathtaking corruption and skyrocketing criminal violence and impunity.
Today, Brazil's ruinous political leadership, economic mismanagement, and COVID-19 crisis are simply bringing the country's long-standing challenges into ever-sharper relief. One of the most insightful books about Brazil, ‘The Brazilians’, by the US law professor Joseph Page, contends that the seeds of Brazil’s underachievement were planted around two hundred years ago. Indeed, the country was the only territory in the New World to have been both the seat of empire and a colony. Brazil was also the last country in the West to abandon slavery (in 1888), which goes some way to explaining its deeply entrenched class structure.
The question of race and racism in Brazil warrants closer inspection. During the Atlantic slave trade, which started in the 1500s and continued until the end of the 1800s, between three and five million slaves were brought from Africa to Brazil. Compare this to the roughly 300,000 slaves – around 5% of the global cumulative total – sent to the US. Even so, for most of Brazil's independent history, the 'race question' has been glossed over. For years, scholars instead described Brazil as a kind of 'racial democracy' made up of citizens living in harmony.
A romanticized narrative of race relations emerged – one strongly supported by the country’s political and economic elite – that somehow Brazil had escaped the trials and tribulations of racism and discrimination. This idea can actually be traced back to a Brazilian sociologist of the 1930s, Gilberto Freyre. He suggested that Portugal’s benign imperialism, the close relations between masters and slaves and the active mingling between races led inevitably to a “meta-race” and a post-racial society.
Today, Black Brazilians earn on average 44% less than their white counterparts.
The sense that Brazil had avoided the racial acrimony and tensions that plagued other countries was a source of pride for many citizens – and indeed many Brazilophiles globally. Throughout the 20th century, the government routinely contrasted its lack of racial animosity favorably with what was happening in the US, before and during the civil rights movement. This was not just for domestic consumption: it played into Brazil’s global positioning as the champion of the disenfranchised, a voice for the so-called Global South, and an anti-imperialist power leading the Non-Aligned Movement.
Not surprisingly, several of these ideas have come under scrutiny. The latest reading is that Brazil’s 'racial democracy' was a fiction. It was most loudly championed by a white elite to obscure very real, very violent, racial oppression. Indeed, a great many of Brazil’s contemporary challenges, such as inequality, exclusion, impunity and violence, are strongly connected to this unexamined legacy of racial discrimination. And in spite of comparatively recent efforts to reduce discrimination, it’s woven deeply into the fabric of the country’s electoral politics, education systems and labor markets. Today, Black Brazilians earn on average 44% less than their white counterparts.
Structural racism is today sustained by the country’s power elite – some of them memorably described by Alex Cuadros’s ‘Brazilionnaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence and Hope in an American Country’. Brazil’s elitism and patronage are legendary, and this has contributed to mind-boggling levels of corruption and impunity. One of the most widely reported instances of corruption is Lava Jato (Car Wash), which started in 2014 and ensnared dozens of former presidents, ministers, politicians, businesspeople and others, across Brazil and another dozen Latin American countries.
Lava Jato was exceptional, even by Brazilian standards. What started out as an investigation into suspected money laundering metastasized into a sprawling corruption scandal at the state-oil company, Petrobras. All told, it syphoned up to $13bn from the public purse, making it one of the biggest corruption schemes not just in the history of Brazil, but of anywhere. The incident even earned its own Netflix series – ‘O Mecanismo’ (The Mechanism), surely one measure of notoriety.
The scandal is just the latest iteration of a long and sordid saga. Before Car Wash there was Mensalão – the Big Money scheme – which involved cash for votes and was discovered in 2005. And before that, there was the Banestado money-laundering scandal, which took place between 1991 and 2002. Until recently, few paid the price for their crimes. Instead, the ability to cheat the system was tolerated, even grudgingly admired.
But there are signs that Brazilians are waking-up and challenging an intolerable status quo. As in the US and parts of Latin America, calls to redress racial injustice, reduce inequality, and stamp out corruption are growing. Over the past few years, and as corruption scandals stacked up, the mood has changed. Until recently, it was inconceivable to imagine Black Lives Matter protestors marching up Sao Paulo's largest boulevards or to believe that the CEOs of Brazil's largest construction firms and members of congress would go to jail, much less stay there.
The convulsions of the past five years, from the impeachment of Dilma Roussef to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, are not simply a result of collapsing commodity prices, bad governance and antipathy toward the left, though these factors matter. They are also the symptoms of a wider racial awakening and reaction to the progressive politics that threatens the ancien regime and the entitlements of the new middle class.
Whether you agree with them or not, the tenure of the Workers Party between 2003 to 2016 shook the establishment. Massive social advancement programs ranging from Bolsa Família to Minha Casa Minha Vida were ramped-up. New quota systems and cultural projects were introduced, designed to empower the underclass. The elite tolerated these activities so long as their interests were untouched. When the commodity boom ended in 2013, the old guard began the process of jettisoning the Workers Party. Brazilians took to the streets and never left. An entire generation is being immersed in a new kind of politics.
So, where are we in Brazil today? The country is facing a threefold crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic which is still in its first wave; the economic crisis which has long-term consequences; and a political-security crisis that threatens domestic stability. Added to this is a fourth crisis that has implications for the world: the deforestation and degradation of the Amazon. Even before the Bolsonaro administration, land clearances were rising, over 90% of them illegal. Since Bolsonaro's election, deforestation rates rocketed to the highest levels in about a decade. If land clearances continue at the current rate, we could soon see a massive die-off that would convert the world's largest tropical forest into its biggest savannah.
As for the health crisis, Brazil documented its first COVID-19 case comparatively late, on 26 February 2020. The initial reaction was slow, but on the right course. Local governments shut down the airports, imposed quarantines, and encouraged people to stay home. Very quickly, however, the situation began to unravel. Bolsonaro was adamantly opposed to lockdowns, since he feared it would negatively affect the economy – and his popularity. He played down and then politicized the evidence, advertised controversial medicines like chloroquine, lost two health ministers, and flagrantly ignored his own government’s health advice.
The results are tragically predictable. Brazil registers 11% of all COVID-19-related deaths in the world, with just 2.7% of the global population. On a per-capita basis, some of its cities have the worst COVID-19-related mortality rates on the planet. Over 241,000 people have already died and researchers say that the real numbers could be over ten times higher.
The disease shows no sign of letting up: epidemiologists say the numbers will keep rising despite the arrival of vaccinations. Part of the problem is that Brazil has an ageing population. But the truth is that most people contracting the disease and dying are poor, vulnerable and Black. Brazil's Health Operations and Intelligence Center estimates that 55% of those who have died of COVID-19 are Black, compared with 38% of white people.
The health situation is precarious, and hospitals in cities across the country have been at some point overwhelmed. The recovery rate is 50% higher in private institutions compared to public ones. It’s worth noting that more Brazilian nurses have died of COVID-19 than any other nationality. The saving grace for Brazil is its public healthcare system, with over 55,000 treatment centers and over 300,000 doctors, nurses and care professionals. Some of them are fighting back: a group of unions, social organizations and medical professionals (calling themselves the UNI-Saude network) have asked the International Criminal Court to indict the president for “contempt, neglect and denial” which, they say, amounts to a crime against humanity. The chances of this happening are, of course, close to zero.
The economic effects of the pandemic are severe. The government estimates a 4.7% contraction in economic growth (revised down from 0% in March 2020). Fitch, the rating agency, is even less optimistic and predicts a drop of 6% or more. The World Bank is even more bearish, claiming the decline could be as high as 8%. Either way, the country is on route to the steepest drop in GDP in decades.
Bolsonaro’s support took a hit, but not by as much as one might expect.
Bad as the situation is, Brazil’s economy was already suffering before COVID-19, including a brutal recession that ended in 2016. Since COVID-19 started spreading, Brazil experienced massive outflows of foreign exchange and a significant depreciation of the real. Unemployment is at 13% and while high, is only a few percentage points worse than it was before the pandemic struck.
Not surprisingly, the government – and particularly the University of Chicago-trained finance minister, Paulo Guedes – is bullish about 2021. He predicts a V-shape recovery by 2021, with a rebound of about 3.2% growth. Many outsiders have their doubts. While he’s reluctantly adopted more Keynesian measures during the COVID-19 crisis (cash transfers, subsidies, tax deferrals), he’s chomping at the bit to impose austerity as soon as possible.
Bolsonaro’s popular support took a hit with COVID-19 and the economic crisis, but not by as much as one might expect. Over the past couple of months, he lost his corruption-fighting justice minister, Sergio Moro, former allies turned against him, support from his middle class fell, and calls for his resignation or impeachment grew louder. The fact that the president faces at least 48 separate charges of impeachment has not helped him. As of last month, 55% of Brazilians said they would like to see him removed before the next election.
Not without a fight
In any 'normal' circumstances this would spell doom for a political leader. And yet Bolsonaro might well emerge unscathed despite his disastrous handling of both the pandemic and the economic fallout. In fact, his approval ratings have gained ground, reaching over 50% by December 2020. This is, after all, a politician with three decades of experience. Bolsonaro will not go down without a fight. In recent months he has rallied the so-called Centrão, the parliamentarians who operate on the basis of favors and patronage.
Bolsonaro is playing Brazil's political game the way it has always been played: by doling out government positions in exchange for support. The president won over parts of the military establishment the same way: some 6,000 army personnel were nominated to government positions (more, even, than during the country’s dictatorship between 1964 and 1985). Importantly, Bolsonaro is still supported by hardcore loyalists, who represent about 15% of voters according to polls, many of them heavily armed. The president also has steady support from many state police who have rallied around him over the years. It is these Bolsonaristas that he has called on to “defend” him from impeachment in the unlikely event that Congress takes this move.
While not necessarily domesticated by the legislature, Bolsonaro laid off the bombast. He's re-learning the virtues of pork-barrel politics, not least the monthly $110 emergency subsidy which has earned him high marks in the north-east and center-west of the country, areas traditionally more supportive of the Workers' Party but still dependent on this assistance. His support declined in the north and south-east where COVID-19 cases are highest.
Although he has staved off the worst crisis of his tenure in the short term, Bolsonaro's political future is far from secure. The municipal elections in November 2020 were a blow, with more than 40 of his 60 preferred candidates failing to make it to the second round. There are many existential threats, not just from the uncontrolled COVID-19 crisis, but from opposing politicians, the supreme court and the criminal justice system. In addition to the threat of impeachment, Bolsonaro could still be convicted by the Supreme Court for common crimes or ejected by the national electoral tribunal for alleged misconduct during the 2018 campaign. His three sons also face a dizzying array of criminal investigations, including for money laundering and hate crimes. Indeed, his eldest son, Flavio, is something of an Achilles heel, and is being investigated by the federal police for money laundering.
There are incipient signs of resistance in an extraordinarily polarized society.
If justice turns against Bolsonaro, some fear Brazil risks going the way of Peru in 1992, when Alberto Fujimori, another right-wing populist, sent tanks and troops to dissolve congress and the judiciary in an 'autocoup'. known as the Fujimorazo. Indeed, no matter how you look at things, storm clouds have gathered on Brazil’s horizon. The health and economic crises show no sign of abating. Indicators of social unrest – demonstrations, protests, demonstrations and outright violence – are rising.
What’s more, homicide rates have started creeping up, and this in a country with almost 60,000 murders a year (ten times the US), the vast majority of them Black males. Police killings are also reaching record highs in a country with around 6,000 executions a year (six times the US), most of which also involve poorer Black men. There are incipient signs of resistance in what is an extraordinarily polarized society, including from governors and mayors. A crop of new candidates are finally coming up the ranks, and this may upset the country’s sclerotic political class.
Even so, Bolsonaro is the candidate to beat in the presidential elections in 2022 – and by a wide margin, according to the most recent polls. At the moment, neither the candidate of the once wildly popular former president Lula or other possible candidates such as Ciro Gomes, João Doria, Luciano Huck, or Sérgio Moro are polling even close to Bolsonaro. Yet, to paraphrase the two-time prime minister of the UK, Harold Wilson – a year is an eternity in politics. In Brazil, that’s arguably more so than anywhere else.
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